After moving to Valdosta, Georgia to run a boat plant, I probably worked 25 Saturdays in a row. Having moved my family and sold our house, there was no turning back, especially with the skyrocketing real estate prices of 2005-2006. If I failed in this job and was called back to headquarters, we could not afford the same standard of house we had left. To me, failure was not an option.
When work got rough back in Orlando, I would take my canoe out to the intercoastal waterway and spend a night on one of the barrier islands. Or during bow season, I could hunt for hogs behind our house along the Econlocahatchee river. These were special places that revitalized the spirit. I hadn’t discovered my special place in South Georgia. Instead I became a weekend soccer dad, traveling all over Georgia with our two boys who were playing on two different travel teams. Sharing that experience with my wife and kids was a blast, even necessary, but it didn’t heal my soul like a weekend on the water or a day in the woods.
Therefore, when a gentleman by the name of Jimmy Whatley invited my sons and I to a weekend of turkey hunting with him and his hunting partner, David Neck, I was thrilled.
Jimmy is originally from Alabama. People in Valdosta have a southern drawl, but Jimmy’s vowels roll all around his mouth and when they finally drip off his tongue slow and smooth, they’re like honey made by bees from special flowers that only grows in the swamps and backwoods of southern Alabama. You can sit and listen to him and his wife, who has the same accent, talk and for seemingly no good reason at all be happy.
Jimmy and his friend David have been hunting partners for about ten years. Together they have raised the art of turkey hunting to a new level. They are masters and know things us ordinary turkey hunters only imagine we know. They hunt six days of every week during season. Their specialty is guiding novice hunters to their first spring gobbler. They do this for free because they love the sport and enjoy the fellowship.
You’re probably wondering how 2 grown men can afford to hunt 6 days out of the week for almost 2 months. Jimmy is a retired vice president of a chemical company who has started several businesses since his “retirement” and David is a real estate agent and has a production company on the side (nowproductionscompany.com). Both schedule their days around their hunts.
In preparation for the hunt, I took my sons to the gun range. I had them practice shooting my 1100, 12 gauge from the sitting position using shooting sticks. I fashioned the shooting sticks from a wild cherry tree that sprung up in our front yard last spring. When they shot, I watched them, not the target, making sure they squeezed the trigger and didn’t flinch. Both boys are on the small end of the scale for their ages. Luke, who was 10 at the time, was knocked over mercilessly every time he pulled the trigger, rocking onto his back, legs flailing in the air. But he never flinched and was always eager for the next shot. Same with Zach who is 2 years older.
Jimmy picked us up Saturday morning, shortly after six. I didn’t sleep well in anticipation of the hunt and had been lying awake since 3 AM. The boys jumped out of bed without a grumble. We got dressed, ate and sat watching the weather channel for 30 minutes before taking our gear out and setting in the drive way. Anticipation is one of the best parts of every hunt with heart.
We hunted on a lease of one of Jimmy’s friends that first morning. Jimmy’s friend, Marty, had roosted the birds the evening before. As we pulled on our camouflage masks and gloves in the predawn gloom, Marty whispered with serious conviction that he had heard at least 30 birds fly up to their roost last night, no telling how many gobblers. Hyperbole is a characteristic of excellent hunters and while I doubted 30 turkeys flew to their roost in that thicket of pines, there was a very good chance we would at least be hearing a gobbler.
With a clear-cut in front of us, we set up in a ¼-acre stand of live oak bordered on the back side by a dirt road with woods fading off into a swamp. To our left was the thicket of pines Marty had told us about. Early in the season, this particular morning was too cool for mosquitoes. Luke sat close to Jimmy so he could give him direction. Zach and I sat next to David who was filming the whole affair. I had a gun to back up Luke in case he missed. No one else carried a firearm.
Before dawn, the cardinals and mocking birds began to call and then off in the distance, a barred owl hooted. We all held our breath straining to hear a gobbler answer. No such luck. In a little while, before full light, a couple hens in the pine thicket began waking up, calling softly to each other, as if to ask, “are you still over there? How did you sleep? Looks like it’s going to be a nice morning. I don’t know if I can tolerate being pestered by those Toms today. Let’s just hang around here for a while.”
After what seemed like 30 minutes, the hens finally cackled and flew down. They slowly picked their way across the clear cut. The boys had become antsy, but as the hens walked in front of us, neither one of them moved a muscle. The hens had no clue we were there. I was proud of my boys, they had passed their first test, holding still long enough for a turkey to get in range. It helped that Zach had fallen asleep.
After the hens passed, Jimmy and David called about every 15 minutes or so. They used a combination of mouth, slate and box calls. David even used what I think was a wing bone call. These guys are master turkey callers. Over the years, with no exaggeration, each has called in hundreds of turkeys. It’s one thing to make a call sound good, quite another to tell a gobbler what he wants to hear. Off in the distance, way on the other side of the clear cut, we finally heard a turkey gobble. But the random gobbles were not in response to Jimmy and David’s calls. Perhaps Marty was working the bird.
A little after 9:00, without saying a word, Jimmy and David simultaneously stood and began readying the gear for the walk out. They reminded me of a flock of birds that change direction in flight with no apparent signal. Perhaps, like the back woodsman who secretly pulls a watch from his pocket and then makes a show of studying the sun and correctly guessing the time, they had agreed on a quitting time and synchronized their watches. However they did it, at the time it was impressive.
On the way out, we found death basking in the morning sun looking like a colorful braid of rope. It was black on the snout, so that was supposed to make it a coral and not a king snake, right? Black on the snout, Jack watch out. Or is it yellow on the head kills a fellow dead? David and Jimmy said it was a coral snake and that was enough for me. As it began to crawl off into the underbrush, David gently grabbed its tail and pulled it back onto the road for filming. “What are you doin’, Son”, Jimmy exclaimed in his southern drawl. “You get bit and you’ll be dead before we get you back to the truck! And Anne won’t let me hunt ‘till your funerals over.” As much as I know Jimmy loves David, I believe he would be hard pressed to miss a morning’s hunt even for his best friend’s funeral. And I don’t believe David would hold it against him.
After filming, I got a stick to throw the snake back in the woods away from our stand. As I flicked the snake, it curled its tail around the stick enough to change its trajectory so that its gaping jaws passed just an inch in front of Luke’s nose.
“Dad,” Zach scolded me, “how would you explain that one to Mom?”
It was good seeing Jimmy the next morning. There is a bond that forms between like-minded men who hunt together. I wished David could come with us, but he had made plans to hunt with someone else previously. On the 30 minute drive between Valdosta and Statenville, Jimmy told us about the place we would be hunting. He had gained permission to hunt the property by guiding the son of the gentleman who leases the property to his first turkey. Jimmy explained there were about 10 gobblers in the swamp around this field, but the field was ruled by a wary old bird. Unfortunately, until the old bird was taken, no one could get to the other gobblers. Jimmy had the old gobbler patterned and said if we held long enough we might get lucky.
Jimmy turned off the truck lights as we turned onto the dirt road leading to the field we would hunt. Silently, we got out of the Dodge Ram 4X4 and finished putting on our hunting gear. Jimmy handed me his camouflage 3 ½” full choke, magnum Berretta. Zach would hunt with my 1100 Remington Luke had used the day before.
There was no wind and it was sticky humid in the steely, predawn gloom. As we walked down the dirt road that dissected the field, I listened to our boots shuffling in the sand and to heavy breathing coming from under our camo masks. The only other sound was an occasional bullfrog like fart from Jimmy. Not wanting him to be embarrassed, I threw in one of my own and the boys answered back. I could only hope the turkeys would be as obliging.
Jimmy stopped and fumbled around in his jacket for a moment. Finally, he cupped his hand over his mouth and let out a deep throated, make-the-hairs-on-your-neck-stand-up, owl hoot. Straight away, a turkey gobbled back.
“That’s not the dominant bird,” Jimmy whispered, and continued on down the dirt road. How does he know that, I wondered?
We set up where the road went over the dam of about a one-acre pond. A swamp skirted close to our back. Any turkey wanting to get to the field and woods on the other side of the pond would pass within range.
Even before the first crack of dawn, the cardinals and mocking birds began to declare their territory. Tree frogs would call for a minute and then for no apparent reason go silent, and after a while, again for no apparent reason, start up again. As it became light, the mosquitoes started flitting in front of our eyes and biting us through our mesh gloves. Jimmy lit his thermocell and the blood suckers left us to enjoy the morning.
Gently, Jimmy yelped tree talk and to our right at the edge of the swamp, some hens answered back. Before daybreak, we occasionally heard the gobbler we had walked past answer owls, but after it became light we did not hear from him again.
Thirty minutes after daybreak, a hen walked out of the woods and fed into the trees boarding the backside of the pond. A couple of great blue herons flew in silently landing at the edge of the water like gray ghosts in the morning mist.
Every 15 minutes or so Jimmy would call. At one point, some hens back in the swamp answered going away, still we heard no gobblers.
It was truly enough just sitting there with Jimmy and my boys watching the day mature. But boys will be boys. By 8:30 Luke had curled up at my feet asleep and Zach, holding the gun in his lap, had become uncomfortable and was moving quite a bit.
Jimmy whispered that he was going to take Zach and walk around the edge of the field. Zach was just too antsy to let a turkey within range.
As Jimmy and Zach got up to go, I had the thought that it would be just our luck for a tom to step out now. As I looked up the road, sure enough, here comes a boss gobbler.
“Jimmy, turkey,” I whispered tersely. Immediately, with as little movement as possible, Jimmy and Zack slowly sat back down.
As the gobbler walked toward us, I knew this was just too good to be true. He would hang up out of range or see us and disappear into the swamp. But on he came, at one point breaking into a half strut.
Jimmy whispered, “deep breaths, Zach,” as Zach raised the 12 gage. Oh, no! Zach had never attempted to shoot this gun without a rest. As the turkey came within range, I quit watching it and watched Zach. I imagined his breath coming fast and his heart racing wildly, which I probably could have heard except for the sound of my own.
The turkey walked 25 yds. in front of us. Jimmy clucked twice. The huge tom stretched its neck looking for the hen, looking dead at us, but completely oblivious due to our camouflage.
“Shoot, Zach, shoot,” Jimmy whispered.
The gun was too heavy. It drooped and then Zach gathered his strength to lift it again.
“Lord, please don’t let him miss,” I prayed. But knowing how heavy the gun was, how long he had been holding it up and how nervous he must be, there was little hope. Would he ever pull the trigger?
Bang! Zach was knocked off his 3 legged stool and the turkey lay flopping in the road. Just as it appeared that Zach had been victorious, the turkey regained its wits and sprang into the air. I threw a load of lead behind it to no avail.
“No, No,” Jimmy reprimanded me. He knew another shot wasn’t necessary. Two wing beats and the turkey collapsed 10 feet down the road lying motionless.
High fives flew all around. I hugged Jimmy. He had given us a memory we will cherish for a lifetime. Jimmy and David hunt hard all spring for moments such as this. I’ll forever be grateful.
Jimmy and I walked over to admire the turkey. Zach leaned against a tree wiping his brow trying to regain his composure. Luke was setting up startled from slumber by the shot and still hadn’t fully figured out what was going on.
“This has been a wonderful morning,” I said. “We still have time to make Sunday Morning Service and thank God for this blessing.”
After a minute Zach and Luke made it over to the turkey. This was the big bird we had been after, a 10-and-a-half-inch beard and 1-and-quarter-inch spurs. I imagined a full mount tucked in a prominent corner of the family room at the new house we were building (we eventually talked Nancy into a head and fan wall plaque for Zach’s bedroom).
Later, Jimmy went to retrieve the truck as I gathered the gear. I noticed Luke was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s Luke?” I asked Zach. “Last time I saw him he was behind that big oak tree,” Zach replied.
I walked over and there was Luke, slumped against the tree with big alligator tears rolling down his cheeks.
“What’s wrong, Luke?”
“Dad, you want to go to church and I haven’t got my turkey yet,” he explained.
I have to admit that I had carried the unspoken fear for some time that my sons would not share the same passion for the outdoors that I have. Truthfully, I was just as proud of Luke for wanting to stay hunting as I was of Zach for shooting the turkey.
Many of my prayers had been answered this day. Now if I could just get the guys at work to build boats together like Jimmy and David hunt together, I could really begin to enjoy life again.
(It took another 6 months but things have finally come together at the plant; just in time to prepare for another turkey season. In the meantime, Zach shot his first deer and David filmed and then edited it, adding music and subtitles-just exactly like the outdoor shows you see on television. In fact, David has filmed several segments for Cabala’s Memories in the Field, a nationally televised show, Zach’s deer hunt was aired March 19, 2008. As luck would have it, Luke hasn’t got a shot yet at a deer or turkey, but his time will come.)
Zach is not the only novice hunter Jimmy Whatley and David Neck have led to a long beard. In fact, you can compare them to Typhoid Mary when it comes to spreading “turkey fever”. In the last ten years they have guided 40? children and teenagers to their first turkey. Now add 50? or so adults to that list and you would think they have a thriving business. But they do it all for fun having not added a single penny to their bank accounts. However, what they do have is priceless, the undying gratitude and fellowship of those they have guided and treasure troves of priceless memories.
“Quote from Jimmy and David.”
“Quotes from people they have guided.”